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Village of Downers Grove approves cost-share program for churches

DOWNERS GROVE – The Downers Grove Village Council voted unanimously Tuesday to expand the cost-share program to help churches make capital improvements that would reduce their stormwater fees.

However, two councilmembers said the ordinance was less than perfect.

“I’m going to vote for this because … I’m looking for any opportunity to help out the church community,” Commissioner Bob Barnett said during the meeting. “I don’t like the way it’s structured. I don’t like the use (of the property) being what seems to be the thing driving the eligibility. That I have a problem with.”

Barnett made similar comments in discussion last month, saying he believes churches should be exempt from the fee and that he was conflicted about making the cost-share program only available to faith organizations and not all nonprofits.

Mayor Martin Tully is similarly concerned that eligibility hinges on the use of a property and not the parcel itself.

But he said the expanded cost-share program will allow churches to minimize the impact of the fee, and also “advance the goals of the stormwater program, which is to, of course, improve stormwater generally through projects that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

The expanded program provides $200,000 in annual funding for the village to make partial matches with churches looking to install permeable pavers or other stormwater related capital improvements. Churches can make those improvements and apply for credits to offset up to 50 percent of their monthly stormwater bill.

Village staff and council members proposed expanding the cost-share program following months of lobbying by local faith leaders who say the new stormwater fee is an unfair burden on nonprofits.

Village officials say the new fee is a more equitable way to fund stormwater improvements because it’s calculated by the amount of stormwater runoff that a property creates.

Before the fee, single-family homeowners were paying for about 75 percent of village stormwater infrastructure improvements, despite only owning about 50 percent of the impervious ground in Downers Grove, officials said.

But for nonprofits such as churches, which don’t pay property taxes, it is an entirely new expense.

The expanded portion of the cost-share program is only available for faith-based not-for-profits.

Village Manager David Fieldman said last month that staff decided against making the expanded grant program available to all tax-exempt properties because the large, financially able institutions like Midwestern University or Good Samaritan Hospital would be eligible.

“We wanted to make sure we put together a program that was targeted to the religious institutions,” he said.

The program will reimburse up to 75 percent of the project cost to the property owner, with a maximum of $5,000 for design and $20,000 for construction. The applicant’s 25 percent share could include in-kind donations of labor, materials and services, according to village staff.

According to figures cited at previous meetings, a typical church pays between $2,000 and $3,000 annually in stormwater fees, meaning if an average church earned a 50 percent credit, they might see a savings of $1,500 annually.

“Which is a lot of money to a household, and it’s a lot of money to a church,” Barnett said last month. “It’s also a really slow payback on anything that’s substantial in terms of investment.”

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